Legislature’s problems go much deeper than Glen Casada

Glen Casada’s tenure as Tennessee’s Speaker of the House of Representatives will come to an end on August 2. His resignation comes weeks after receiving a no-confidence vote in a closed-door meeting of the Republican Party Caucus following revelations of misconduct and abusive behavior.

Still, Casada’s departure falls short of addressing the most pressing crisis in the legislature—and that is the systematic ‘othering’ of non-Whites, women’s rights advocates, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and undocumented immigrants. In numerous debates this session, such as police oversight, voting rights and civil liberties, vouchers, reproductive justice, sexual assault, and immigration, Casada and his allies castigated these groups, routinely pushing through legislation harming their communities with little regard to parliamentary rules.

It is a mistake to assume that the legislature’s problems are due solely to Casada’s transgressions. Never a believer of Madisonian governance, Casada is well known for his autocratic and muscular leadership-style before being elected as Speaker. Yet, his fellow Caucus members weaponized this win-at-all-cost approach to promote their legislative agenda. With near unanimity, Caucus members backed far-right legislation and mimicked Casada’s abusive and condescending attitude toward the ‘other’ when it best satisfied their needs.

Had ‘othering’ been Casada’s only offense, however, he would remain as Speaker. Yet his actions embarrassed Tennessee, laid bare for the entire nation to examine the hostility of the legislature. As such, they exposed the collective animus of the governing supermajority towards the most vulnerable residents. Besides, ambition can overrule fidelity, as younger and opportunistic lawmakers in the Caucus clamored to remove Casada so they can have a turn at the third highest office in state government.

The actions of Casada’s Chief of Staff Cade Cothren appeared to be the tipping point for former loyalists. Cothren, the embodiment of racial entitlement and hyper-sexualized chauvinism, frequently objectified women, made racial-incendiary commentaries, and engaged in rampant drug use in the state capitol. Casada sanctioned this behavior, and encouraged it at times, so much that it was difficult to differentiate the boss from the employee.

Among the most disturbing aspects of Casada’s reign was his treatment of Justin Jones and Jeneisha Harris, two Black activists arrested for protesting Nathan Bedford Forrest’s bust located in the state capitol. Forrest is the chief protagonist of the Lost Cause tradition in Tennessee. The Confederate general was a shrewd slave trader before the Civil War. During the war, he led the massacre of Black soldiers who surrendered at Fort Pillow. After the war, he became a leading figure in the Ku Klux Klan. When the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871 targeted the Klan’s terror, he turned his attention to a convict-leasing business that exploited Black labor. At the center of Forrest’s persona is an anti-Black racism, which in recent years, Casada and his allies seem intent on protecting.

Civil rights leaders have protested the Forrest statute since the 1970s. Yet the attacks by Casada and Cothren against Jones and Harris were personal and vindictive. They were a social reprimand of all activists who resist White supremacist iconography across the state. His decision to ban them from the legislature raised additional concerns about First Amendment rights. Cothren even concocted a story to criminalize the activists that could have led to an extended jail sentence.

Cothren’s mobster-like slur of Nashville police (he referred to MNPD as “rent a cop c__ksuckers” after a traffic stop) further highlights the hypocrisy of the governing supermajority. During the legislative session, Casada and Majority Leader William Lamberth railed against the Community Oversight Board (COB) that Nashville voters approved in a referendum election last November. Sitting from his perch in the House Judiciary Committee, Lamberth’s sanctimonious diatribes against oversight boards attempted to shield police officers from any accountability metrics. Both he and Casada used racial dog whistling to portray COB advocates as anti-police and against the rule of law. Yet, the antipathy toward the police came not from advocates, but from Casada’s principal staffer.

The Casada saga underscores a crisis of governance that will remain after his exit. Communities marginalized as others have been treated as extraterrestrial to Tennessee’s political community, society and culture. Hence, it is likely that the Tennessee legislature will not change once a new Speaker takes control, regardless of their decorum or civility.

Changing directions in the state legislature will require critical resistance that avoids the trappings of partisan polarization. Advocates emerging from marginalized communities must root their resistance in the home districts of lawmakers, remove the pillars of support that prop up lawmakers such as their political donors and allies in the business community, and promote electoral justice strategies that reshape voters’ connections to the legislature. Change can come, but it just won’t happen with the election of a new Speaker.

(Sekou Franklin is co-coordinator of Democracy Nashville-Democratic Communities; Kenneth Caine is co-coordinator of Democracy Nashville-Democratic Communities; Howard Allen is a member of the Tennessee’s Poor People’s Campaign).